Does being the most liveable city in the world mean anything?

EIU's ten "most liveable" cities in the world (scores out of 100)

The good thing about ‘winning’ the World’s Most Liveable City gong is that it might help market Melbourne to overseas tourists, students, investors and maybe even buyers of our services. Unlike the Grand Prix, it costs us nothing. And while it won’t stop some Melburnians from pissing in trains (like this guy in case you missed him in yesterday’s post), it might give many others greater pride in their city. The thousands of Melburnians who travel overseas for business or pleasure each year can now be ambassadors for their city with this neat and handy marketing tool.

But of course league tables like The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual Liveability Survey are all bunkum and sensible people shouldn’t be sucked in. The EIU’s Survey purportedly provides an objective ranking of world cities based on 58 variables measuring dimensions like political stability, health care, environment, culture, education and infrastructure. However, as I’ve explained before (here, here and here), there are a number of reasons why liveability league tables are best left to the marketeers.

The EIU’s Survey is designed primarily to assist companies with formulating appropriate living allowances for staff posted to overseas cities. These people are transitory and well-heeled – they don’t experience the city like the average permanent resident. They usually rent somewhere convenient and salubrious, so they won’t care too much about high housing prices and inadequacies in outer suburban public transport.

There are also difficult methodological problems involved in arriving at a single summary ranking of a city’s “liveability”. These sorts of surveys typically have lots of variables – some are easy to measure, others are very subjective. The analysts often make the convenient but unrealistic assumption that they’re all of equal value (weight). Not all of them can be ‘added’ together in any meaningful sense, yet they have to be to arrive at a simple league table.

The differences between top cities in these sorts of surveys are in any event miniscule and hence of little consequence. For example, the top five ranked cities in the EIU’s survey all scored 97 points out of 100 (see exhibit) – this would be swamped by the margin of error in the estimates. The EIU acknowledges that “some 63 cities (down to Santiago in Chile) are considered to be in the very top tier of liveability, where few problems are encountered…. Melbourne in first place and Santiago in 63rd place (can) both lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles”.

Defining “liveability” is itself a difficult challenge (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the ‘Sydney vs Melbourne’ debate – see here and here). The EIU finds the concept so slippery it comes up with this tautology: “The concept of liveability is simple: it assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions”. Arriving at a consensus definition is extremely hard because it depends on a number of factors, like the characteristics of the observer – for example, their ethnicity, their income, their stage in the life cycle and so on. The vibrant centre of Melbourne might add nothing to the city’s liveability for someone who’s elderly, or on a low income, or a member of a cultural group that is under-represented in the city.

It’s not surprising the EIU’s top ten cities seem to be all of a one. They’re all medium sized cities (no megalopolises here), they’re practically all low to middling density, they’re all in first world countries and, with the possible exception of Sydney, they all have cool to cold climates. What seems obvious is that the ranking is shaped much more by the characteristics of the host country than anything else. Factors like political stability, health and education – which loom large in the selection calculus – are pretty much the same whether you’re in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide or Auckland.

I would be more inclined to focus on the attractiveness of a city and measure how sought after it is (perhaps by looking at the difference between wages and housing costs). It’s instructive, I think, that few of the cities in the EIU’s top ten are the sorts of places young people around the world seem to aspire to live in. Let’s be realistic, Australian cities don’t have quite the drawing power of places like London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris.

The slightly different methodology used by the rival Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranks Sydney 10th and Melbourne 18th. This is a big drop in ranking for Melbourne compared to the EIU Survey, but again the difference in ranking is far larger than the difference in absolute scores, which is small. Read the rest of this entry »

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What to do about fare evasion?

% journeys where fare is evaded (Metlink data)

Metlink released its Metropolitan Fare Evasion Survey on the weekend, which apparently shows 13.5% of trips on public transport in Melbourne in the first half of 2011 weren’t paid for.

The figure for trams, where it’s easier to avoid paying, was much higher – The Age’s headline was One in five evading fares on trams (see exhibit).

Metlink’s disappointed me before with its slipshod approach to customer focus and they’ve done it again this time. The survey was released to the media, but not to public transport users, so we can’t read it (in fact the most recent media release available on Metlink’s web site as of today is 17 August!).

However fortunately The Age has cited some of the findings in this indignant editorial, Fare dodgers owe us all big time. I also stumbled across Metlink’s Network revenue protection plan 2010 which was released under FOI and made available publicly by The Age (I do like it when media use the power of the digital world to supply supporting documentation online).

Metlink’s Network Revenue Protection report provides some interesting findings based on focus group research. I found it surprising only a small proportion of travellers actually always pay the fare  – most people have not paid the fare at some time and some don’t pay frequently. The sorts of explanations offered are “because I didn’t have any change” or “because I could get away with it”.

Worryingly, the report argues that “fare evasion is seen as normative behaviour shared by the majority of the population”. Prevalent public attitudes are:

  • Even people who admit to occasional fare evasion do not see themselves as ‘fare evaders’ i.e.they don’t see what they do as wrong
  • Fare evasion is seen as socially acceptable i.e. it is perceived that everyone does it
  • Opportunistic or inadvertent fare evasion leads to more systematic fare evasion as people learn how to ‘get away with it’
  • Some customers are unwilling to pay for what they perceive as poor service delivery
  • The existing ticketing system is perceived as letting passengers down – it’s too confusing, too hard to use, etc
  • Poor value for money – despite the value provided by ‘bulk’ tickets, Melburnians are more likely than users in other Australian cities to consider public transport expensive
  • Some customers like the idea of  ‘playing the game’ and actively take on the system.

Many comments on The Age’s news report support this conclusion. Not paying fares is variously justified by difficulties with buying or validating tickets, inadequate information about ticketing requirements, poor quality of service, and expensive prices. Some suggest conductors should be restored to trams and some, with imaginative logic, say making public transport free would put paid to the problem of fare evasion (pun not intended).

Trams present a particular difficulty for protecting revenue because they’re relatively “open”. It isn’t practical to have barriers at city stops like there are at loop rail stations. Even with the best of intentions, ticket purchase and validation can be difficult on a crowded tram. Chronic evaders can “hover” near a validation point and only use it if an inspector comes aboard.

Whatever measures are adopted to increase fare compliance, there are limits. There’s always going to be a trade-off between minimising non-compliance, maintaining an attractive experience for bona fide travellers, and keeping costs within sensible bounds – this is public transport, so there’s a political constraint as well. Some lost revenue is inevitable: almost all retail businesses tolerate some degree of freeloading because beyond a certain point the cost relative to the saving in foregone revenue is too high. Read the rest of this entry »


Malls & strips: what’s the difference?

(Image from Fleskw - via The Conversation)

Whether you like them or not, malls have been pretty successful in capturing a sizeable share of the retail dollar in Australia since the first ones opened in 1957 at Chermside in Brisbane and Top Ryde in Sydney (Chadstone opened in Melbourne in 1960). Much of that success historically came at the expense of strip shopping centres, so it’s worth unpicking what it is about malls that attracts shoppers.

Both retail forms have their advantages and disadvantages from a consumer’s and an urbanist’s point of view. A week ago I took a general look at malls (What’s so bad about malls?) but what I want to look at here is a singular advantage that regional malls have over regional strip shopping centres: unified management. In one sense that’s a trite observation – it’s hard to imagine that a collection of small businesses could’ve gotten together in the 1950s to build collectively something as large as suburban Chadstone in Melbourne, currently Australia’s largest mall.

The Myer Emporium, however, had no such coordination problems. It was able to ignore the objective of the MMBW’s 1954 Melbourne and Metropolitan Planning Scheme to confine development to activity centres served by public transport. Ken Myer constructed instead a massive new retail centre on a Malvern orchard, well away from the nearest rail station.

Let me be clear that this is not a post about which is ‘better or ‘worse’ – it’s about understanding the differences between malls and strips and, in particular, why they’re different. I’ve chosen to look at management arrangements because I think that’s a key difference and space is limited, but it’s not the only one. I’ll try and look at other differences another time.

The real power of the management advantage enjoyed by malls is in operations. A stand-alone regional mall like Chadstone or Northland has a single landlord and manager who coordinates a wide range of key commercial variables, from infrastructure to the overall retail offer of the mall.

I think of malls as being a bit like clubs. The welfare of each retailer depends not only on his own performance but on that of all the others — they generate business for each other. That’s true of strips too, but in malls the tenants formally cede a considerable measure of independence to the centre manager in return for maximising the benefits of the mutual inter-dependency of the parties. The manager’s role is to maximise the benefit for all tenants and, consequently, for herself. If she doesn’t also satisfy shoppers then both she and the retailers will suffer.

One of the most important qualities of any regional centre for shoppers, whether it’s a mall or a large strip centre, is the range and choice of products and services on offer. The mall’s advantage is it is ‘designed’ or ‘engineered’ to maximise the retail experience.  Managers are able to optimise a range of critical variables important to customers, like the mix of shops/tenants, the mix of merchandise value, and the mix of floorspace allocated to different retail segments. Considerable research effort is devoted to the subtleties and nuances of what sells and what doesn’t.

The centre manager can create a unified marketing image. She can also engineer a defined ‘experience’ or ‘atmosphere’ comprised of the retail offer, associated services like cinema, and the design of the physical environment. She can control the level and management of car parking, often providing it for ‘free’. Moreover she can provide simple things like clean, safe and working public toilets; tenant directories; staffed centre management offices; and security services.

The management advantage also extends to the quality of staff. Malls are largely populated by national franchises that can afford to put effort into choosing and training staff and supporting them with sophisticated management systems, inventory control and procedures manuals.

All of these activities are much more difficult for a strip shopping centre. Strips are composed of multiple landlords and multiple tenants. Individuals within each of these groups may have different priorities. Further, circulation and parking spaces are administered by a range of public agencies, such as local government and traffic authorities. In many centres there are residential and other non-retail occupants in the centre with agendas which might be inconsistent with the priorities of businesses and organisations that serve the public directly.

This diversity of purpose makes it more difficult to get any sort of sustained, unified action. Publicly funded programs like Mainstreet have endeavoured to create some semblance of joint action by retailers and other players but the results have been small scale, short-lived and largely confined to ‘beautification’ projects. Even where they work, they seldom go to the core commercial issues. Read the rest of this entry »


Are our trains going down the toilet?

There’s a theory that women are an “indicator species” of how bike-friendly a city is. According to Deakin University’s Jan Garrard, “if you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’ — just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female”.

I reckon you can say much the same thing about public toilets and public transport. Good public transport systems have good toilets because good managers focus on the welfare of users. Maybe users who are given a good system take better care of it.

The idea that a major urban node like a rail station doesn’t have toilets for its thousands of daily users is simply appalling. We wouldn’t tolerate their absence in other public places like a school, a stadium or a mall.

What’s more basic than a call of nature? If you’re travelling by train and you’ve got infants that need to be changed, or pre-teens that have difficulty planning ahead, or you’re pregnant, or you’ve been on the turps, or you’ve got an aging bladder, or you or someone in your care is feeling sick, then having access to a toilet is a fundamental human necessity.

Even in Manhattan, one of the world’s great public transport oriented cities, a busy interchange station like Union Square, with tens of thousands of people passing through each day, does not have toilets accessible to the public. Dense nodes of human activity are the very places that should have toilets!

Fortunately we have toilets at major CBD stations in Melbourne, but most suburban stations don’t. According to Greens MP, Greg Barber, two thirds of stations in Melbourne do not have toilets for public use. Even some premium stations don’t open the toilets at all times, even when staffed. Mr Barber says there are 40 stations with more than 5,000 patrons per day that don’t have public toilets.

For example, Box Hill is the tenth busiest rail station in Melbourne with circa 10,400 users per day on average, however according to Wiki:

Despite being a Premium station, there are no public toilets within the station complex. Toilets for station patrons were originally located out in Main Street Mall, however, they have been closed permanently due to vandalism. Station patrons must now use the toilets provided by the adjoining shopping centre, which are only open during trading hours.

Lack of privacy is a disadvantage of public transport relative to the car, so managers should be working hard to minimise passengers’ fear they might be put in an embarrassing position. Passengers shouldn’t have to plan their travel around the risk of needing unscheduled toilet stops.

Why are there so few public toilets at rail stations? The former Minister for Transport in the Brumby Government said toilets at stations weren’t open “for good reasons: first of all for issues of security, and for issues of cleanliness, and the like”. I acknowledge it costs money to clean graffiti and repair vandalised fittings. It probably costs much more to keep toilets clean (and were toilets opened at stations I expect users would demand a high and costly standard of maintenance). But I reckon that’s just one of those base line costs, like safety, that just have to be  accepted – it’s the price of simply being in the business.

The excuse I find really odious is that toilets should be closed to prevent druggies using them. That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are other strategies for managing this problem – the Government’s promised PSOs should help – but even if toilets are used by junkies, they should nevertheless be kept open and kept in good order so ordinary passengers aren’t punished when in extremis. Travellers will doubtless avoid using toilets frequented by addicts, but they need to know they’re there when nature calls urgently and unexpectedly. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Melbourne’s trains really this bad?

Hurstbridge line, yesterday

The amazing thing about this footage is that it was filmed only yesterday at Montmorency on the Hurstbridge rail line. The truly shocking thing is apparently this section of track was upgraded to concrete sleepers last year.

It was uploaded to Youtube by Rocketboy 1950, who says:

I shot this footage on the Hurstbridge line at Montmorency. It is testament to how safe trains are and how they will handle extraordinarily bad track without going arse over head. This is of course not to say that some of the passengers will be going to see a chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon to have their backs put right after riding the trains through here.

Expertly placed on a curve.

Update: Channel 7 now on to this and ran this story on Friday evening news.


New book giveaway: ‘When we think about Melbourne’ by Jenny Sinclair

Detail from cover of 'When we think about Melbourne'

Affirm Press has kindly supplied two copies of Jenny Sinclair’s beautiful book, When we think about Melbourne, to give away to readers of The Melbourne Urbanist.

To be in the running to get a copy, all you have to do is say which shopping/activity centre in Melbourne you think is the best. Follow this link to enteror go to the Pages menu in the sidebar (don’t enter on this page). Entries close midday Saturday, 3 September 2011. One entry only per person.

As usual the quality of your nomination has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not you’ll win a copy of the book. The winner will be determined at random. However, a little explanation is encouraged. If you’re stuck, “the Bourke Street mall”, is acceptable.

If you’re one of the winners, you’ll have to provide Affirm Press with an Australian address they can post the book to (I won’t know who you are or where you live).

Here’s how Readings describes When we think about Melbourne:

Considering most Melburnians remain as steadfastly loyal to their city as they do their chosen AFL team, Jenny Sinclair is not alone in her love of Melbourne. When We Think About Melbourne charts the geography of Melbourne by exploring the historical and cultural significance of its landmarks and suburbs. Each section is accompanied with images and maps, which make for an interactive reading experience.

Sinclair’s interest lies in the way people make sense of their surroundings and come to call a particular area home. She does this through analysing the importance of maps, whether they are grand-scale drawings, something found on Google, or lines scrawled on notepaper. She also explores the potent effects of Melbourne on its artists – from Paul Kelly to Helen Garner – and how their works shape our own view of this ever-evolving city.

Here’re some images from this very visual book; here’s a review by Anson Cameron published in The Age; and here’s the author in conversation with John Faine (in company with Sonia Hartnett and Chopper Read!).

This extract from one of the chapters, City Stories, looks at how novelists have imagined Melbourne and here’s a small part of the rightly famous chapter on the Melway, a cartographic delight. Best of all though is this extract from a glowing review by The Melbourne Urbanist:

One of the observations made by Jenny Sinclair in When we think about Melbourne really strikes a chord with me – just how different the city is when you see it from the saddle of a bicycle. In this extract, she’s just cycled up the middle of St Georges Rd to Reservoir:

Perched on my bike on the track that runs through the park opposite these fine houses, I look down across Preston, Glenroy and to the city, and think: ‘it’s all downhill from here’. When I get home, I felt my sense of the world had expanded a little. Moments like this, of unexpected connection and revelation – I call them ‘surprised by joy’ moments after Wordsworth’s poem – come when we immerse ourselves, when we walk and ride; they are why we should get out of our cars for ourselves, not ‘just’ for the environment or for exercise Read the rest of this entry »


What can be learned from the English riots?

"Remember, if you're arguing on the internet, you've already lost"

A lot of the commentary published in the wake of the English riots earlier this month marvelled at the wide range of views on the underlying causes. But few had much of substance to say themselves that might enhance broader understanding of the fundamental causes of the riots.

I’ve come across three sources that I think actually do have something interesting to say about the riots, or at least offer a different perspective. One is from the new issue of the UK Architect’s Journal; one is a new op ed by urban economist Edward Glaeser; and the third is a study by the Black Training & Enterprise Group in the UK on educational attainment in the British Chinese community.

What the Architect’s Journal says……

The UK Architect’s Journal asked a number of prominent Britons with an interest in design and cities for their views about the recent English riots. Those who responded include Joseph Rykwert, Richard Sennett, Jeremy Till, Alain de Botton and Robert Taverner.

Sennett says the riots were all too predictable – “a generation of poor, young people with no future becomes a tinder box for violence”. Taverner says the riots are a sobering reminder that people make cities – “cities rely on a precarious social balance that can be wrecked by the irresponsible”.

Some implicated the built environment more directly. Rykwert says cities incite riots – “herding people in high-rise reservoirs of social aggression doesn’t help”. Yasman Shariff says there are fundamental problems with urban regeneration schemes – “riots in new generation areas point to the schism where ordinary people cannot afford the new people’s palaces…..it can be little surprise that these regeneration areas are being torched”.

Marianne Mueller, whose practice is involved in assessing regeneration scheme designs, says “spaces for young people and public facilities in general (nurseries, libraries, green open spaces…..) are definitely not a focus in the schemes we have been reviewing over the last few years”.

The response that most struck a chord with me is from Jeremy Till who, perhaps surprisingly for an architect, emphasises the importance of underlying social processes relative to the built environment:

At least the architects are not blamed this time, as we were with Broadwater. Nor could we be, because (quoting Simmel) the city is not a spatial entity with sociological consequences, but a sociological entity that is formed spatially. Here the riots spatialise years of ramping up of social inequality. So when my Twitter feed calls for the reintroduction of Jane Jacobs, I blanch (because space is not the solution, just the symptom) and when the Tories say it is ‘pure’ criminality, I rage (because of the implicit disavowal of their political responsibility).

Very astute, Professor Till.

What Edward Glaeser says………

Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser has published a short op ed on Bloomberg View in response to the English riots, titled How riots start and how they can be stopped. He reminds us that not all riots are overtly related to a political grievance (e.g. the ice hockey riot in Vancouver earlier this year). He argues there’s a tipping point where the cost of rioting – in terms of the risk of being arrested – gets lower as the number of people participating gets larger:

If I decided to start rioting tomorrow in Harvard Square to express my outrage at the closing of the beloved Curious George children’s bookstore, it’s a pretty good bet that I would be immediately arrested. But if thousands of others were involved, I’d probably get off scot free. The police would be overwhelmed, and my probability of incarceration would fall to zero. Thus, riots occur when the sheer mass of rioters overwhelms law enforcement.

Professor Glaeser also provides some insights on how riots might best be managed. He cites research which compares the Paris riots of 2005 with the Republican Convention in New York in 2004, where the threat of violence was averted. Police arrested only a handful of rioters in Paris, but sought serious criminal penalties. In contrast, the New York police arrested over 1,000 people but eventually let them go:

The New York strategy protected the city; the French strategy wasn’t as effective. The lesson: Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behaviour. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. But in the case of riots, it is awfully hard to actually prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the streets. Arresting widely and temporarily can be far more effective.

What the Black Training & Enterprise Group says………

The Black Training & Enterprise Group’s study, titled What more can we takeaway from the Chinese community? (that just has to be an unintentional pun!), suggests that common explanations for poor educational performance, like ethnicity and poverty, don’t provide a complete answer. The study, which relied on official statistics from the UK Department of Education, found that 87.5 percent of British Chinese students pass the GCSE whilst their white counterparts manage only 69.6 percent. Further,

Black students from African and Caribbean descent attain a combined 67 percent respectively. Children of Indian heritage are the closest ethnic group in gaining similar levels of attainment but still only manage 82.2 percent exposing a gap of nearly 5.5 percentage points. Read the rest of this entry »